How to calculate your macronutrient intake?
Tracking your calories is one of the most effective ways to set up a proper dieting phase, whether you want to gain weight or lose weight. However, if this is one of your first attempts, an easier way of approaching it is to track your macronutrients instead and let your calories fall where they may. In this article, I want to give inexperienced dieters all the tools they need to set up their diet.
Protein: What are they?
Before we delve into its usefulness, let’s briefly address what proteins are and where you can find them. Proteins are nitrogen-containing compounds, and since your body can’t create nitrogen on its own, a steady supply of protein is essential to your survival.
Proteins include a variety of amino acids, easily twenty different types. We can categorize these amino acids as essential or non-essential. The former group includes eight different amino acids, and the remaining twelve are non-essential. Due to their role in activating muscle protein synthesis, the amino acids you care about and should remember are leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
As you can imagine, most animal products have a very complete protein profile and are a great source of amino acids. On the other hand, vegan sources (peas, rice, bread, lentils, etc.) contain somewhat incomplete profiles and thus require more protein per meal to be as effective.
Now that we are done with the basic overview let’s move on to the stuff you care about—how much protein should you eat?
Although the details are still debated, there is a growing consensus that roughly 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight are a good number to aim for. For the metrically challenged, that’s a rough equivalent of 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Although this recommendation is probably enough to net you most of the hypertrophic benefits protein has, it doesn’t take into account some practical issues. For instance, as we age, our sensitivity to protein decreases, which means that we need to consume more protein to get the same results. Furthermore, protein can be quite satiating while having a high TEF (thermic effect of food), meaning that you can eat more food and feel less hungry while not getting fatter. So, where does that leave us?
Strength and power athlete recommendation.
For most individuals that are involved in a strength sport or simply want to get bigger and stronger, I would advise a higher recommendation of 2-2.5g/Kg (1-1.2g/lb). One thing to consider is that protein is fairly expensive, so if you are strapped for cash it’s a better option to stay closer to the 1.6g/kg recommendation. Whatever extra benefits you may get with a bit more protein isn’t worth destroying your bank account.
Endurance athlete recommendation.
Endurance runners require seem to require a bit less protein. A recommendation of 1.6-2g/kg (0.8-1g/lb) is enough to cover your bases. In the research, a higher protein intake seems to simply end up oxidized and doesn’t seem to provide any additional benefits.
Fats: What are they?
Fats are one of the essential nutrients that you need daily to ensure you’re in good health. Once again, let’s briefly describe what they are, and then we can move on to the recommendations. We can categorize fats as simple lipids and compound lipids.
For dietary purposes, we will focus on simple lipids which contain fatty acids. You’re probably quite familiar with fatty acids, it's a group that includes trans fats, saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats.
Saturated fats are typically found in animal products, and their healthiness is hotly debated. On the other hand, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can be found in a variety of nuts and vegetable oils and are generally considered a healthier option.
Honestly, If you eat a balanced diet with a varied supply of foods, you’ll probably hit your fat requirements hassle-free. However, for the sake of being thorough, I’ll give you some basic numbers to follow. You should aim for 0.5-1 gram of fat per kilogram of body weight. In pounds, that is the equivalent of 0.22-0.5 grams per pound.
Of course, this recommendation is meaningless if you follow a high-fat diet since you’ll be eating a substantial amount of fat daily. Regardless, try to get your fats from healthier sources rather than animal products. You might also want to supplement with some fish oil to get your daily dose of EPA/DHA unless you enjoy eating plenty of fish and seafood.
Carbohydrates: What are they?
Despite the bad reputation carbohydrates get, they can be a great boon to a performance-minded athlete. In this section, I will give you several options, depending on your goals and preferences. But before we delve into recommendations, let’s quickly address what they are.
Carbohydrates are a category of macronutrients that include several different compounds. The primary role of this macro group is to serve as the preferred energy source of your body, with one notable exception being fiber (yes, fibers are carbohydrates). In other words, although your body uses carbohydrates more efficiently, it doesn’t require any carbohydrates for survival and can rely on other macros for energy (fat). That’s the main reason why ketogenic and low-carb diets exist and aren’t harmful to your health.
Aside from fiber, the other three primary categories of carbohydrates are monosaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides. However, since this isn’t a biology class, let's use the layman’s categorization of sugars, starches, and fibers. The former two are the ones you’ll be using to build up a solid calorie base to fuel your training.
This part might get a bit tricky since carbohydrates can be quite flexible. You see, unlike the two previous macronutrients, the number of carbohydrates you need to perform optimally will vary a lot depending on the type of training you do. For instance, an office worker that trains three times a week recreationally will barely need any carbohydrates. At the other end of this spectrum, an ultra-runner or a cross fitter will require an astonishing amount of carbohydrates to fuel those endless daily sessions.
Not only is there plenty of variability between individuals, but there is also variability within your training week. If most of your grueling workouts happen in the first half of the week, you will probably need more carbohydrates then.
Strength and power athlete recommendation.
A decent blanket recommendation for high-carb dieters that are focused on strength and power would be to eat roughly 4g of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight (2g/lb).
Endurance Athlete recommendation.
For endurance athletes, you can start at 7g/kg (3.5g/lb) and scale it accordingly depending on your workload. Of course, if you follow a low carbohydrates diet or a ketogenic diet, this recommendation is meaningless for you, and you should strive to keep your total carbs between 30 and 100 grams. Granted, I would not advise a low-carb diet for endurance-type training.
A good general rule of thumb is to calculate your protein and fats first, and whatever is left of your calorie intake can go to carbohydrates. Keep in mind that all these numbers are just starting points at the end of the day, you need experience to land on optimal numbers that fit your needs best.
Tracking your daily weight is a good way to assess if you are overeating carbohydrates. For instance, assuming that your goal is to maintain your body weight, if you notice that you're consistently gaining weight, then it is a clear sign that you are overeating carbohydrates. On the other hand, if you are losing weight consistently, then it's time to increase your intake.